A look at Yankees infielder Eduardo Nunez

Of all the high-priced talent and personalities who may or may not live up to their reputations on the 2012 Yankees, one player in particular seems to incessantly enrage the fan base.  Any moment he takes the field, the fans see him as an accident waiting to happen.  Debuting with the Yanks in 2010, Eduardo Nunez has been somewhat of an enigma.

Touted in the minors as a defensive asset over his offensive skill set, those credentials have flip-flopped since becoming a semi-regular Yankee.  Should the front office dangle Nunez as trade bait or does he simply need more time to adjust to the Major Leagues?

Statistical history shows that Nunez makes the majority, if not all, of his mistakes on the left side of the infield (shortstop and third).    At those positions, he has a career .925 fielding percentage.  While not terrible, his most glaring deficiencies are revealed in his UZR, or ultimate zone rating.  UZR takes batted balls and assigns probability that a particular position will successfully field it.  If he was successful, the fielder gets credit above the MLB average.  If the player does not, negative credit is assigned.  The closer to zero a player’s UZR is, the more he is considered an average defender at his position.

At third base, Nunez as a career -7.4 in 388.1 innings while he holds a -9.6 in 433.2 innings at short. Taking it one step further, UZR/150, which adjusts the UZR to an expected result for 150 games played in one season, translates into -30 (for shortstop and third base).  That’s a lot of projected mistakes for a starter.

Another way to gauge Nunez’s defensive skills is by looking at his RZR, or Revised Zone Rating.  This statistic looks at the percentage of balls hit in a player’s defensive zone that successfully gets converted into an out.  Despite facing nearly twice as many plays at shortstop, his RZR sits at .780 vs. .628 at third base.  His positional mentor, Derek Jeter, possesses a career .809 RZR.  Consider those numbers with the fact that there are advanced scouts who insist that Jeter has lost more than a step or two defensively (and is 13 years older).

Another advanced defensive stat worth a look is Nunez’s career -7.4 ErrR at shortstop (-2.1 at 3rd).  That figure translates into just over 7 runs his defensive play has cost, on average, to the Yankees during his short time with the club.  On the contrary, Nunez has played 17 games (83 innings) at second base and is yet to make an error.  He is also yet to make an error in five games (18 innings) played in the outfield.

Offensively, Nunez is an average player.  While playing 30 games in 2010, Nunez had an OBP of .321, a respectable .280 batting average, and scored 12 runs.  In 2011 he played in a career high 112 games posting a .313 OBP, hit .265, and scored 38 runs.  Both his batting average and on base percentage hovered near or slightly below the league average.

One asset Nunez brings to the Yankees is speed.  For the 2010 and 2011 seasons, Nunez has converted 27 of 33 stolen base attempts.  Nunez is also an above-average contact hitter.  Looking at his swinging strike percentage, he has a 5.1 percent swing/miss rate that is below the league average of 8.5 percent.  His O-Swing (swings on pitches out of the strike zone) and Z-Swing (swings in the strike zone) sit at 33.8 and 61.8 percent respectively.  His contact percentage is rated at 88.7 percent, which is well above the league average of 80 percent.  Clearly Nunez is a pretty disciplined hitter who makes good contact.

After six games this season and nine at-bats, Nunez is hitting .444 with a .899 OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) and one stolen base.  Defensively, he’s played four games in the infield (eight innings at short and 20 innings at third) and one game (.1 innings) in the outfield.  Nunez currently posts a .800 fielding percentage at shortstop, making his only error of the season at that position (errors were not dwelled upon as assigning an error to a player is completely subjective to the scorekeeper).  He still has time to hone his defensive play and could evolve into a better hitter.

As it stands now, putting Nunez in the infield for an extended period of time seems like a big risk, as he’s yet to prove he can be dependable.  Nunez has and will continue to excel as a base runner, making him an excellent pinch-running option.  Nunez could also prove useful in at bats requiring hit-and-run or sacrifice scenarios.  Outside of that, there really seems to be no permanent fit for Nunez on the Yanks besides role player.  With no other viable options in the farm system for the heir to Jeter, the Yankees should continue to work with Nunez.   Otherwise, Nunez could become a nice chip in a deal at the trade deadline of the off-season.

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8 Responses to A look at Yankees infielder Eduardo Nunez

  1. Bronx_Knight says:

    Nice article. I agree with your conclusion that Nunez is only really valuable as a pinch runner. Considering how horrific his defense has been, and how often Jeter and A-Rod will need to rest and/or DH, the Yankees seem really foolish in relying so heavily on Nunez as their primary backup infielder (I don't count Chavez because he is so injury prone).

    Nunez's glaring defensive weaknesses are why I was disappointed that the Yankees did not make a bigger effort to sign Hiroyuki Nakajima (the Japan all-star infielder whose bidding rights they won earlier this winter). By all accounts, Nakajima was a plus defender. He would have made more sense than Nunez.

    • mlblogsaugustine says:

      The thing that's so vexing about him was he was actually considered a good defender in the minors. Some switch just flipped when he got to the majors. Maybe the first couple of goofs really got to him. Some guys just don't excel at the mental side of baseball (moving on from the past, losing the jitters, etc not on a intellectual level).

    • klaus says:

      And yet, we've seen him make a couple of spectacular plays. He seems to do worst when he has time to think about it, all of which makes his errors more glaring. Since the brass seems determined to give him a lot of rope, we can only hope that he settles down soon. That said, every time I see him I think of Knoblauch.

    • Tanned Tom says:

      Nakajima wanted to be an everyday player, no way that was happening unless Jeter or A-Fraud got injured. As for Nunez, he exemplifies how management becomes attached to a perception about a player even when it is at variance with his performance. In other words, because scouts think Nunez can be the utility infielder the team keeps using him as such. Even when it is clear he is ill suited to the role. Same thing happened last year when they sent Nova down even though he was their 2nd best pitcher, to accomodate Hughes. They simply can't get it out of their heads that they expect Hughes to be better than Nova, even though the opposite has clearly been demonstrated.

      • Bronx_Knight says:

        I agree with your comments about the Yankees management's "ossification" in its player perception.

        Re: Nakajima, I will point out that Nunez got over 300 at-bats last year. I was thinking that they could probably have given Nakajima 400 at-bats this year — but of course A-Rod was injured last year. No guarantee that that will happen again.

      • mlblogsaugustine says:

        "Ill suited to that roll"…do you imply that he should be a starter? As you mention injury when referencing Nakajima, Nunez has no other place in the fold right now. I guess what I should have stated was a 'shit or get off the pot' approach to Nunez; either commit to him as Jeter, ARod, etc's understudy or ship him off. We can guess, but can't really predict what he would do as a full-time player. He could fold like a lawn chair or be a solid player. The only gauge we have is the 2011 season where he started 83 games at various positions.
        Two things are certain with him- excellent plate discipline and great speed.

  2. Jnat says:

    I think what everyone seems to be missing on this guy is that if his defense falls short, he could still prove to be an excellent DH. The Yankee offense suffers from a high percentage of men left on base because their lineup is too heavy with power hitters whose swing and miss rate is exceptionally high, and thus whose outs are often non productive strike outs or infield pop ups. Their lineup could really be complemented by one or two more hitters who can make contact and move runners either with a hit or a productive out. His offensive skills seem to be continually improving, so regardless of what he was touted to be in the minors, why not focus and capitalize instead on the strengths he is displaying in the majors? With his speed and ability to make contact, he seems to be an excellent fit as a DH in the two hole behind Jeter or even further down in the lineup sandwiched between two power hitters to lessen the possibility of consecutive whiffs. Let's not be so quick to trade away someone displaying skills the offense needs and continue to covet Russell Branyan type hitters for the DH spot who hit one home run in 20 at bats off a second rate pitcher when we are already 5 runs ahead, but strike out and leave men on base galore for most of the other 19 at bats.

  3. mlblogsaugustine says:

    I like what you're saying Jnat. Nunez is an extremely disciplined hitter but, for whatever reason, can't seem to clear the fog from his head in the infield. While he's not the 'prototypical' DH, the only other productive option for him is in the outfield…a spot he has little experience in. But with his speed alone, that makes him an upgrade over Ibanez or Jones until Gardy returns.

    Thanks for reading everyone.

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